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Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2005, pp. 173–183 (
Sex Differences in the Flexibility of Sexual Orientation:
A Multidimensional Retrospective Assessment
Kelly K. Kinnish, Ph.D.,1 Donald S. Strassberg, Ph.D.,2,4
and Charles W. Turner, Ph.D.2,3
Received August 15, 2003; revisions received March 16, 2004 and September 13, 2004; accepted September 18,
The flexibility of sexual orientation in men and women was examined by assessing self-reported
change over time for three dimensions of sexual orientation (sexual fantasy, romantic attraction, and
sexual behavior) across three categorical classifications of current sexual orientation (heterosexual,
bisexual, and gay). The primary purpose of the study was to determine if there were sex differences in
the flexibility (i.e., change over time) of sexual orientation and how such differences were manifested
across different dimensions of orientation over the lifespan. Retrospective, life-long ratings of sexual
orientation were made by 762 currently self-identified heterosexual, bisexual, and gay men and
women, aged 36 to 60, via a self-report questionnaire. Cumulative change scores were derived for
each of the three dimensions (fantasy, romantic attraction, and sexual behavior) of orientation by
summing the differences between ratings over consecutive 5-year historical time periods (from age
16 to the present). Sex differences were observed for most, but not all, classification groups. There
were significant sex differences in reported change in orientation over time for gays and heterosexuals,
with women reporting greater change in orientation over time than did men. Bisexual men and women
did not differ with respect to self-reported change in orientation.
KEY WORDS: sexual orientation; homosexuality; bisexuality; sex differences.
research. These include (1) conversion therapy outcome
studies which, with very few exceptions (e.g., Spitzer,
2003), document very low success rates in treatment
efforts to alter sexual orientation (e.g., Haldeman, 1991,
1994); (2) research suggesting a developmental continuity
between gender-atypical behavior in childhood and later
adult homosexuality (Bailey & Zucker, 1995; Bell et al.,
1981; Green, 1974, 1987); and (3) studies of the biological
etiology of sexual orientation, an underlying assumption
of which is that evidence of such a contribution to etiology
implies a probabilistic relationship between the identified
biological condition and sexual orientation outcome (e.g.,
D¨orner, 1968; D¨orner & Hintz, 1968; Meyer-Bahlburg
et al., 1995; Money, Schwartz, & Lewis, 1984; Mustanski,
Chivers, & Bailey, 2002; Ricketts, 1984).
The view that sexual orientation is fixed and unalterable has recently been challenged from a variety
of theoretical perspectives, including labeling theory,
lifespan development, social constructionism, and evolutionary psychology (e.g., Baumeister, 2000; D’Augelli,
A central question in the study of human sexuality
concerns the stability of sexual orientation; that is,
whether, and to what degree, sexual orientation changes or
remains the same over time. Until recently, the prevailing
scientific position has been that sexual orientation is an
early-determined, stable trait that is highly resistant to
change (e.g., Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981;
D¨orner, Rohde, Stahl, Krell, & Masius, 1975; Ellis &
Ames, 1987; Haldeman, 1991; Harry, 1984; Money,
1987). The position that sexual orientation is stable across
the lifespan is supported by findings from several areas of
of Pediatrics, University of Miami, Miami, Florida.
of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.
3 Oregon Research Institute, Eugene, Oregon.
4 To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Psychology, 380 S. 1530 E., Room 502, University of Utah, Salt Lake
City, Utah 84112; e-mail: email@example.com.
C 2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
1994; Diamond & Savin-Williams, 2003; Kitzinger, 1987;
Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995; Richardson, 1984). Theorists in these areas have suggested that sexual orientation
is inherently flexible, evolving continuously over the
lifespan. From this perspective, individuals may experience transitions in sexual orientation throughout their
lives. Sexual orientation is viewed as continually evolving
out of an individual’s sexual and emotional experiences,
social interactions, and the influence of the cultural
context (Baumeister, 2000; Brown, 1995; D’Augelli,
1994; Diamond, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c; Diamond & SavinWilliams, 2000, 2003; Golden, 1994; Kitzinger, 1987;
Paul, 1985; Richardson, 1987). Such influences may work
together to maintain sexual orientation or may precipitate
subtle or not-so-subtle shifts in orientation.
Such a conceptualization of sexual orientation
is supported by findings from several research areas.
These include (1) qualitative studies of individuals who
have experienced transitions in sexual orientation after
lengthy periods of homosexuality or heterosexuality (e.g.,
Charboneau & Lander, 1991; Dixon, 1984; Kitzinger
& Wilkinson, 1995; Sophie, 1985; Spitzer, 2003);
(2) studies of “situational homosexuality” (e.g.,
incarcerated individuals [Gaillombardo, 1966]); and
(3) research with self-identified bisexuals who report
alternating periods of exclusive orientation to one sex
or the other (e.g., Blumstein & Schwartz, 1976; Rosario
et al., 1996; Zinik, 1985).
The question of the fundamental stability or flexibility of sexual orientation has generally been addressed
without consideration to sex. That is, those arguing that
sexual orientation is stable and immutable, as well as those
arguing that sexual orientation is flexible and evolving,
have typically extended their position to both men and
women (e.g., Blumstein & Schwartz, 1976; D’Augelli,
1994; Harry, 1984). However, it has increasingly been hypothesized that men and women may differ in this regard;
specifically, that flexibility may be more characteristic of
women’s than men’s sexual orientation (e.g., Baumeister, 2000; Bem, 1996; Brown, 1995; Charbonneau &
Lander, 1991; Diamond, 2000, 2003a, 2003b; Friedman &
Downey, 2002; Haldeman, 1994; Harry, 1984; Henderson,
1984; Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995; Masters & Johnson,
1979; Nichols, 1990; Pillard, 1990; Rust, 2001).
Unfortunately, empirical documentation of sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation is limited.
Few studies of change over time in sexual orientation
include both men and women for direct comparison
and other relevant research is limited by the atypicality
Kinnish, Strassberg, and Turner
of the populations studied (e.g., prison inmates, marital
“swingers,” and group sex participants).
Ancillary indicators of sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation are found in comparisons
of how men and women experience and conceptualize
their sexual orientation and in differences noted in their
descriptions of their sexual lives. It has been observed, that
men typically describe their sexuality in terms that suggest
a continuous and unchanging orientation, whereas women
often describe a more fluid, continually evolving, highly
contextual sexual orientation (Brown, 1995; Gonsiorek
& Rudolph, 1991; Haldeman, 1994; Henderson, 1984;
With regard to identity development or “coming out,”
Haldeman (1994) likened the process for gay men to that
of “an internal evolution of sorts, a conscious recognition
of what has always been” (p. 222); and Henderson (1984)
described it as “a discovery, not a choice . . . they admit
their (presumably continuous) homosexuality” (p. 217).
For lesbians, this process has been characterized by
“greater fluidity and ambiguity” (Gonsiorek & Rudolph,
1991, p. 165; Diamond, 2003a). It is more tied to “choices
or social and political constructions” (Haldeman, 1994,
p. 222), and perhaps more influenced by contextual
factors (Henderson, 1984; Pillard, 1990) and responsive to
“culture, learning and social circumstances” (Baumeister,
2000, p. 347).
The purpose of the present study was to assess stability and flexibility in sexual orientation across the adult
lifespan, as demonstrated by change in orientation over
time, and to evaluate sex differences in this flexibility. It
was hypothesized that women would report greater change
in sexual orientation over time than men for all three
categories of current sexual orientation (heterosexual,
bisexual, gay). No prediction was made with regard to
which dimension(s) of sexual orientation (sexual fantasy,
romantic attraction, sexual behavior) would best reflect
this sex difference.
In order to assess stability and flexibility in sexual
orientation and evaluate sex differences therein, the
present study conceptualized sexual orientation as a
multidimensional, continuous variable, represented primarily by Kinsey ratings for sexual fantasy, romantic
attraction, and sexual behavior, as well as via categorical
self-identification. These dimensional components were
selected for several reasons. First, within-participants
differences on ratings of these dimensions have been
documented in a number of studies (e.g., Bell & Weinberg,
1978; Berkey, Peral-Hall, & Kurdek, 1990; Reinisch,
Sanders, & Ziemba-Davis, 1988, Stokes, McKirnan, &
Burzette, 1993). Further, these dimensions have been
found to discriminate between categories of sexual
Sex Differences in Flexibility of Sexual Orientation
orientation (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual) (Snyder,
Weinrich, & Pillard, 1994) and closely correspond to the
three most commonly occurring elements in conceptual
definitions of sexual orientation found in the sexual
orientation literature (Shively, Jones, & DeCecco, 1983).
Flexibility, defined here as change in sexual orientation over time, was therefore represented by time-related
changes in Kinsey ratings of these multiple dimensions
of orientation. Although it is acknowledged that there
are other possible manifestations of flexibility in sexual
orientation, of greatest interest in the present study was
change in sexual orientation over time. It is this issue of
temporal stability that may correspond best to the question
of the immutability of sexual orientation.
Through the use of a wide variety of recruitment
strategies, we hoped to secure as large (and hopefully
representative) a sample of each sex by current sexual
orientation category as possible. These strategies included
(1) advertisements in a variety of local, regional, and
national print publications of both general interest and
those targeting special populations (e.g., retirees, women,
gays, the bisexual community); (2) announcements to
community groups (again, both general groups as well
as those serving the same special populations); and
(3) Internet recruitment via announcements on web pages
and postings to e-mail discussion lists and usenet groups.
The basic recruitment advertisement/announcement read
as follows: “Men and women age 35 and above of all
sexual orientations are needed for an anonymous questionnaire survey of human sexuality being conducted by
researchers at the University of Utah. We are attempting
to gather some basic information on sexuality/sexual
orientation across the lifespan. The questionnaire takes
approximately 10-40 minutes to complete depending on
the person’s age and sexual history and consists of a
series of brief questions about sexual behavior, sexual
orientation, romantic relationships, and attractions across
Recruitment announcements and letters of introduction provided interested individuals with two means
of participation in the study: online completion of the
questionnaire at the study web-site or participation via
surface mail. A total of 1,041 individuals completed the
survey on-line. Of these, 636 (61%) were retained in
the final sample. Identical questionnaire packets were
sent to community groups and to individuals who left
phone requests. A total of 513 packets were sent to
15 community groups for distribution, of which 137
(26.7%) were returned, 89 of which were included in
the final sample. There were 73 phone requests for
questionnaires to be sent by mail, of which 24 (32.9%)
were returned to the study, 18 of which met eligibility
A total of 1229 completed surveys were received, of
which 444 were removed because the respondents were
outside the age range of the survey and an additional 23
were removed because the individual did not currently
self-identify as gay, bisexual, or heterosexual. After these
removals, 762 participants remained (420 men and 342
women) between the ages of 36 and 60. Of the 420 men,
163 currently identified as heterosexual, 76 as bisexual,
and 181 as gay. Of the 342 women, 119 currently identified
as heterosexual, 65 as bisexual, and 158 as lesbian. The
sample was predominantly Caucasian (89%) and well
educated (94% had attended some college, 30% had a
college degree). Unlike much previous sexuality research,
participants were not mainly from large metropolitan
Table I. Distribution of Participants by Sex, Current Sexual Orientation, and Age Group
areas (only 20% lived in cities of 500,000 or more).
The distribution of participants by sex, current sexual
orientation, and age group is provided in Table I.
The questionnaire used in this study was developed
specifically for that purpose. It was designed to obtain
the specific current and historical sexual and relationship
information necessary to test the research hypotheses in
the briefest time. While no formal pilot testing of the
questionnaire took place, early versions were refined
based on feedback from colleagues of the authors.
Depending on the age and sexual experience of the
respondent, it required from 10 to 40 minutes to complete.
The following data were obtained for use in the present
Kinnish, Strassberg, and Turner
asked to indicate “the most appropriate term to describe
yourself” (i.e., one of the following categorical labels,
heterosexual, bisexual, gay/lesbian, other) for each age
period and to rate themselves for the period, using the
same 7-point Kinsey scale mentioned above, for each of
the three dimensions of sexual orientation (sexual fantasy,
romantic attraction, sexual behavior).
While it is obvious that peoples’ sexual lives do
not change neatly at 5-year intervals, we chose to use
discrete time periods in order to make manageable these
life-long retrospective reports. Five years was chosen
because it was reasoned that a shorter period of inquiry
would substantially (and, perhaps, unreasonably) lengthen
the time required for participation, while longer periods
would increase the likelihood that brief periods of change
might not be detected.
Derivation of Change Scores
Respondents’ age, sex, race/ethnicity, education,
occupation, and city of residence were requested.
To assess change over time, difference scores between consecutive 5-year rating periods were computed
(Difference Score1 = Kinsey Rating Age 16–20 minus
Kinsey Rating Age 21–25; Difference Score2 = Kinsey
Rating Age 21–25 minus Kinsey Rating Age 26–30, etc.).
The absolute values of these difference scores were then
summed to obtain a total change score. This was done
separately for each of the three dimensions of orientation
assessed (sexual fantasy, romantic attraction, and sexual
Current Sexual Orientation
Participants were asked to indicate their current selflabeled sexual orientation by selecting the term that he/she
currently believed “most accurately represented” them
from the options of heterosexual, bisexual, gay/lesbian,
or other self-identification (with space provided to explain
response of “other”).
Total Change Lifespan (TCL)
Dimensional Ratings (Past 12 Months)
Participants rated themselves on a 7-point Kinsey
scale (where 0 = “exclusively heterosexual” and 6 =
“exclusively homosexual”) for three dimensions of sexual
orientation: Sexual Fantasy, Romantic Attraction (e.g.,
“in-love,” “crushes”), and Sexual Behavior (sexual acts),
for the most recent 12 months.
Participants were asked to provide information about
themselves for 5-year periods beginning with age 16–20
(i.e., age 16–20, 21–25, 26–30, 31–35, etc). To facilitate
recall, respondents were asked a set of initial orienting
questions for each 5-year period (calendar years spanned,
primary place of residence, occupation). They were then
The primary dependent measure, Total Change Lifespan (TCL), was computed by summing the absolute
values of all possible difference scores for each participant
(TCL = |DiffScore1| + |DiffScore2| + |DiffScore3| +
· · · + |DiffScore7|). While this score made maximum
use of the available data, an obvious limitation of this
approach for assessing change over time was that there
was not equal opportunity for change across ages; for older
participants, the total change scores were computed from a
greater number of difference scores. There are at least two
ways of addressing this possible confound: Treating age as
a covariate or using age as an independent variable in the
analysis. The first approach assumes a linear relationship
between age and change as well as equal correlations
of the dependent variable with age across gender within
each orientation. However, we anticipated the possibility
of non-linear effects of age and of an interaction of age
Sex Differences in Flexibility of Sexual Orientation
Table II. Means and SDs of Total Change Lifespan Scores For Dimensions of Sexual
Orientation By Sex and Current Categorical Sexual Orientation
Note. For each men-women comparison, means with different subscripts were significantly
different from each other (p < .05)
with gender or orientation and, therefore, chose to evaluate
the effects of age by treating it as an independent variable.
for each of the current Sexual Orientation categories
(Heterosexual, Bisexual, Gay). The three change scores
(sexual fantasy, romantic attraction, sexual behavior) were
the dependent variables (see Table II).
Table II shows the means and SDs of Total Change
Lifespan (TCL) scores by sex and dimension of sexual
orientation. A 2 (Sex) × 5 (Age Group) × 3 (Sexual
Orientation: Heterosexual, Bisexual, Gay) multivariate
analysis of variance (MANOVA) was performed for the
Total Change Lifespan (TCL) scores, with the three
dimensions of sexual orientation (sexual fantasy, romantic
attraction, and sexual behavior) serving as the dependent
variables. The results yielded significant multivariate main
effects for Sex, F (3, 732) = 3.00, p < .001, Age Group,
F (12, 1937) = 4.43, p < .001, and Sexual Orientation,
F (6, 1464) = 56.35, p < .001, as well as significant
multivariate Age Group × Sexual Orientation, F (24,
2122) = 2.84, p < .001 and Sex × Sexual Orientation,
F (24, 2122) = 6.78, p < .001, interactions.
To investigate further the Sex by Sexual Orientation interaction, we examined the main effect of Sex
within each Sexual Orientation, while also statistically
controlling for the effects of Age and the Age × Sexual
Orientation interaction. To accomplish these objectives, a
series of follow-up 2 × 5 (Sex × Age Group) MANOVAs
were performed within each current Sexual Orientation.
Both Age and Sex were included in these post hoc
analyses because both variables had significant main
effects which could not be ignored when examining either
the Age × Sexual Orientation or the Sex × Sexual
Orientation interactions. These analyses were designed
to examine either the Age or Sex interaction effect while
also controlling for the significant effects of the other
variable (i.e., either Age for the Sex interaction or vice
versa). Separate tests, described below, were conducted
Heterosexual Men and Women
Among heterosexuals, a significant multivariate
main effect was found for Sex, F (3, 270) = 3.63, p =
.013, but not for Age Group or for the Sex × Age Group
interaction. The main effect for Sex was in the direction
of higher change scores for women. Follow-up univariate
tests revealed that there were significant Sex differences
in total change for the dimensions of sexual fantasy, F (1,
270) = 8.68, p = .003, and romantic attraction, F (1,
270) = 4.85, p = .028, with women reporting greater
change than men over the lifespan on these dimensions
(see Table II). The effect sizes for these differences were
in the medium range (Cohen’s d for sexual fantasy = 0.36,
for romantic attraction = 0.31). There was no significant
sex difference for sexual behavior (F < 1).
Bisexual Men and Women
Among bisexuals, there was a significant multivariate
main effect for Age Group, F (12, 344) = 3.46, p <
.001, but the Sex main effect and the Sex × Age Group
interaction were not significant. Follow-up univariate tests
revealed significant Age Group differences for sexual
fantasy, F (4, 345) = 5.76, p < .001, romantic attraction,
F (4, 345) = 2.29, p < .01, and a marginally significant
effect for sexual behavior, F(4, 345) = 3.64, p = .06.
The general trend across all three dimensions was toward
higher change scores with increasing age, perhaps (at least
in part) as a function of the increasing time over which
Kinnish, Strassberg, and Turner
change could have taken place for older respondents. Total
Change Lifespan (TCL) scores for bisexuals (men and
women combined) were as follows: sexual fantasy; for
current age 36–40, M = 2.13 (SD = 1.6), age 41–45, M =
2.90 (SD = 2.1), age 46–50, M = 4.04 (SD = 2.3), age
51–55, M = 4.14 (SD = 2.4); romantic attraction, age
36–40, M = 2.77 (SD = 2.1), age 41–45, M = 3.29
(SD = 2.7), age 46–50, M = 3.71 (SD = 2.8), age 51–55,
M = 4.68 (SD = 2.9); sexual behavior, age 36–40, M =
3.23 (SD = 2.4), age 41–45, M = 3.06 (SD = 2.5), age
46–50, M = 4.06 (SD = 2.8), age 51–55, M = 5.55
(SD = 2.7).
Gay Men and Women
Among gays, significant multivariate main effects
were found for Sex, F (3, 327) = 23.83, p < .001 and
Age Group, F (12, 865) = 2.82, p = .001, as well as a
Sex × Age Group interaction, F (12, 865) = 2.15, p =
.012. With regard to Sex, lesbians reported greater change
than gay men for all three dimensions (see Table II),
with the following large effect sizes; sexual fantasy,
d = .82, romantic attraction, d = .49, and sexual behavior,
d = .59. Follow-up analyses revealed that the Sex × Age
Group interaction was significant only for the dimension
of sexual fantasy, F (4, 865) = 4.71,p = .017. On this
dimension, lesbians showed a pattern of relatively high
change scores increasing significantly with age, whereas
gay men reported relatively low change scores with no
significant increase with age. The TCL scores for gays
on sexual fantasy were as follows: For men age 36–40,
M = 0.64 (SD = 1.3), age 41–45, M = 1.24 (SD =
1.8), age 46–50, M = 1.23 (SD = 2.1), age 51–55, M =
1.55 (SD = 2.2); for women age 36–40, M = 1.94 (SD
= 1.6), age 41–45, M = 2.43 (SD = 2.3), age 46–50,
M = 3.33 (SD = 2.8), age 51–55, M = 5.17 (SD = 4.2).
Dimensional Change: Overview
While many of our participants reported some
change on one or more dimensions, it is clear that this
in no way implies that sexual orientation is a pervasively
fluid, easily altered characteristic. Fully one third of our
total sample (66% of heterosexual men, 5% of bisexual
men, 33% of gay men, 51% of heterosexual women, 1.5%
of bisexual women, 9% of lesbian women) reported no
change ever for any dimension of orientation. Slightly
more than half of our participants (93% of heterosexual
men, 10% of bisexual men, 48% of gay men, 86% of
heterosexual women, 9% of bisexual women, 20% of
lesbian women) reported no more than a cumulative one
point shift on any dimension over their entire adult lives.
Even smaller changes were reported by all groups when
orientation was assessed with the more stringent categorical measure (Heterosexual, Bisexual, Gay, see below).
Nevertheless, a compelling two-thirds of our participants
reported some shift across the three dimensions of
Changes in Categorical Self-Identification
While the dimensional ratings described above constituted the primary level of analysis for this study, we
also examined changes in categorical sexual orientation
ratings. As one would expect (Diamond 2000, 2003a),
there was less change in this aspect of sexual orientation
than in the dimensional ratings. Of the 762 participants,
277 reported one or more transitions in categorical sexual
identity over the lifespan: 5 (3%) of 163 currently selfidentified heterosexual men, 4 (3%) of 119 heterosexual
women, 50 (66%) of 76 bisexual men, 50 (77%) of 65
bisexual women, 69 (39%) of 177 gay men, and 99
(64%) of 154 lesbians. Chi-square analyses of the sex
Table III. Previous Sexual Orientation Self-Labels for Each Current Categorical Sexual Orientation
refers to a combination of the two categories that differ from the individual’s current categorical
sexual orientation: For current heterosexuals, this refers to those having self-identified as both homosexual
and bisexual at different previous time periods; for current bisexuals, this refers to those having identified
as homosexual and bisexual at different previous time periods; for current homosexuals, this refers to
those having identified as heterosexual and bisexual at different previous time periods.
Sex Differences in Flexibility of Sexual Orientation
differences were non-significant for heterosexuals (χ 2 <
1, df = 1, ns) and bisexuals (χ 2 = 2.20, df = 1, p > .05).
Lesbians, however, were significantly more likely to have
ever changed their categorical sexual self-identity than
were gay men (χ 2 = 21.10, df =1, p < .001). Table III
presents the breakdown, by percentage, of the specific
previous categorical self-identifications for each current
sexual orientation group.
As can be seen in Table III, only a minority of currently bisexual men (34%) and women (23%) had always
self-identified as bisexual. For most current bisexuals of
both sexes who had ever changed, the shift that took
place was from a prior identification as a heterosexual
rather than a homosexual or some combination of both.
Consistent with other reports (e.g., Diamond & SavinWilliams, 2003; Rosario et al., 1996), only a minority
of currently self-identified lesbians had always seen
themselves as lesbians, with most of those who changed
having previously identified only as heterosexual. In
contrast, the majority (61%) of gay men had always seen
themselves as homosexual, with those who had changed
having been more likely to previously self-identify as
strictly bisexual than as strictly heterosexual.
The flexibility over time of sexual orientation in
currently gay, straight, and bisexual men and women was
evaluated by assessing self-reported change in (1) three
dimensions of sexual orientation (sexual fantasy, romantic
attraction, and sexual behavior) and (2) orientation category (gay, straight, bi). Sex differences were observed in
many, but not all, comparisons made.
There were significant differences in reported change
in dimensional orientation over time between gay men
and lesbian women and between heterosexual men and
heterosexual women, but not between bisexual men and
women. However, the pattern of these differences was
not the same across the three dimensions of orientation
assessed. Specifically, while lesbians reported greater
change than gay men did on all three dimensions assessed
(sexual fantasy, romantic attraction, and sexual behavior),
heterosexual women reported significantly greater change
than heterosexual men only for sexual fantasy and
romantic attraction (i.e., what little change there had been
on the behavior dimension for heterosexuals did not differ
by participant sex).
When change in sexual orientation was assessed
using the more stringent categorical measure (i.e., heterosexual, bisexual, or gay self-identity), the sex difference
was significant only among homosexuals. Specifically,
lesbian participants were far more likely than gay men
to report having previously identified as something other
than homosexual (39% of gay men, 65% of lesbians).
Further, among the currently identified homosexuals who
had previously identified as something else, most of the
women had previously identified as heterosexual, while
for the males, the modal prior identification was as bisexual (rather than heterosexual). In this sense of change too,
it could be argued that the women demonstrated greater
fluidity (moving from heterosexual to homosexual) than
did the men (moving from bisexual to homosexual).
It has been suggested that women’s sexual orientation is more contextually embedded, whereas men’s
sexual orientation transcends context (Brown, 1995;
Gonsiorek & Rudolph, 1991; Haldeman, 1994; Harry,
1984; Henderson, 1984; Pillard, 1990). Friedman and
Downey (2002) offered a possible biological explanation
for such a sex difference. They suggested that prenatal
testosterone limits options for sexual fantasy for men
much earlier in the life cycle, and to a much greater
degree than for women. Alternatively, sex differences in
response to context may be primarily related to differences
in the way males and females are socialized with regard
to sex and love. Henderson (1984) suggested that “girls
learn to be sexual in the context of social relationships”
(p. 217) and subordinate sex to love, whereas for boys
the opposite is true. Such differences in response to
contextual influence may yield greater shifts in orientation
over the lifespan for women and thus account for the sex
differences observed in the present study.
Contrary to our predictions, bisexual men and
women did not differ with regard to reported change in
sexual orientation over time. Although this finding limits
the scope of conclusions that can be drawn regarding sex
effects, it is noteworthy in other respects. The lack of
sex differences between bisexual men and women in this
study, while sex differences were found for heterosexuals and gays/lesbians, may provide modest support for
previous assertions that bisexuality (as a social and/or
biological phenomenon) may be qualitatively distinct
from both heterosexuality and homosexuality (Blumstein
& Schwartz, 1976; Harry, 1984; Klein, 1978; McDonald,
1982; Rust, 2001; Zinik, 1985). It is interesting to note that
the change scores of both the bisexual men and women
were higher than those of all other groups, except the
lesbians who showed the greatest dimensional changes
among all the groups (see Table II).
Our sex-related findings may help to explain, in part,
why most conversion therapy outcome studies suggest
that sexual orientation is remarkably stable (Haldeman,
1991, 1994), even in the face of concerted efforts to alter
it. Most conversion therapy participants reported in the
literature are gay men (Haldeman, 1991, 1994), the nonheterosexual group that, in our study, (a) exhibited the
smallest dimensional changes (see Table II), and (b) the
least likely to have ever considered themselves anything
but their current orientation category (see Table III).
As discussed previously, there is no agreed-upon
definition or measurement of sexual orientation. Whether
sexual orientation is a categorical construct or exists on
a continuum is still debated (e.g., Ellis, Burke, & Ames,
1987; McConaghy, 1987; Van Wyk & Geist, 1984). The
central components or dimensions of sexual orientation
are likewise an unresolved matter. In this study, sexual
orientation was defined as a multidimensional construct
comprised of cognitive, behavioral, and affective components. The dimensions of sexual fantasy, romantic
attraction, and sexual behavior were selected for analysis,
and the 7-point Kinsey scale was employed to represent
the continuum of orientation.
The necessity for this multidimensional assessment
of orientation was borne out by the pattern of results. That
is, a different set or smaller number of dimensions of measurement might not have revealed the differences among
heterosexuals, gays and bisexuals in the manifestation of
sex differences in orientation.
In this study, flexibility in sexual orientation was
defined as change in orientation over time (measured
dimensionally and categorically). However, flexibility
may be manifested in other ways. For example, flexibility
might be regarded as the polarity of Kinsey ratings at
a single point in time (Zinik, 1985). That is, someone
who is near the middle, “bisexual” range of the Kinsey
scale would be considered to be more flexible than
someone who is at either extreme end of the Kinsey scale
(exclusively heterosexual or homosexual).
The breadth of the spectrum of dimensional selfratings might also have demonstrated flexibility over time.
Those with a more flexible orientation would cover a
greater portion of the scale over the lifecourse. Alternatively, flexibility might be demonstrated by openness to a
spectrum of future behaviors and attractions, regardless of
past experiences (as in Klein, Sepakoff, & Wolfe, 1985).
Future research may determine if these or other measures
of flexibility yield patterns of results consistent with the
Given that our principle data are retrospective, memory bias is a potential threat to the findings of this study.
How well our participants were able to recall how they
felt, thought, and behaved decades ago is open to question.
Further, it has been suggested that the recollections of
gays and lesbians may be specifically biased toward an
essentialist interpretation of past events and feelings (e.g.,
Kinnish, Strassberg, and Turner
D’Augelli, 1994; Hoult, 1983). That is, gays and lesbians
may recall or interpret past experiences and feelings in
a way that may be particularly suggestive of an earlydetermined sexual orientation or a strong developmental
continuity between early experiences and adult sexual
orientation outcome. If true, it is possible that some
participants actually experienced greater change in sexual
orientation over their lifespan than was reflected in their
reported retrospective ratings. Whether men and women
might have been differentially impacted by such potential
bias is also unknown.
As described earlier, the choice of a five-year rating
period represented a compromise between our desire to
identify most of the changes that might have taken place
and our concern about discouraging participation because
of an unreasonably long questionnaire (particularly for
older participants). Certainly, some of our participants
could have made one or more changes during any of the
five-year periods. As a consequence, they might have had
difficulty characterizing themselves during such a period.
Further, different participants could have utilized different
strategies in trying to make such characterizations. While
we recognize the variance that was likely introduced by
the rating period choice we made, we also recognize that
any alternative rating period would have introduced its
own advantages and disadvantages.
In all research that relies on volunteer participants,
particularly when response rates cannot be consistently
evaluated, there are concerns regarding the representativeness of the research sample in terms of age, social class,
and other demographics (e.g., our largely Caucasian,
well-educated sample), as well as attitudes and relevant
experiences. This concern is particularly appropriate in
sexuality research, where volunteers have been found to
be more liberal, sex-positive, sexually experienced, and
more permissive than those who choose not to participate
(Clement, 1990; Strassberg & Lowe, 1995). In this study,
that effect might have translated to a greater than representative number of participants whose sexual fantasies,
romantic attractions, and/or sexual behaviors were quite
varied. Further, differences between participants and nonparticipants in sexuality research are often more extreme
for women than men (Strassberg & Lowe 1995). Thus,
the sex differences observed in this study may, at least
partially, be accounted for by volunteer bias.
Many therapists derive their understanding of gay
and lesbian experience, and thus their direction for
clinical intervention, from models of homosexual identity
formation (e.g., Cass, 1979, 1983; Chapman & Brannock,
Sex Differences in Flexibility of Sexual Orientation
1987; Coleman, 1981; McDonald, 1982; Plummer, 1975;
Ponse, 1978; Troiden, 1979, 1988). The therapeutic goal
implicit or explicit in these models is adoption of a unitary
(gay or lesbian) identity. These models typically outline
a stage-like process including recognition, uncertainty,
acceptance, and integration of a homosexual identity. A
central principle of these models, however, is that sexual
orientation is an enduring core feature of the individual
(Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995; Richardson, 1984). While
it is likely that these models accurately capture the
experience of many gay and lesbian individuals (Cass,
1983; Coleman, 1981), the present study suggests that
there are at least some for whom sexual orientation is not
a stable characteristic and that this is more likely to be
the case for women than men. An alternative therapeutic
objective, which focuses on authenticity and recognition
of the fluid, dynamic, complex nature of orientation,
may be appropriate for some clients, particularly women
(Bridges & Croteau, 1994; Coleman, 1987; Diamond,
2003a, 2003c; Golden, 1987; Green & Clunis, 1989;
Directions for Future Research
The specific pattern of sex differences found in
this study requires replication and further investigation.
It remains to be seen if the pattern across sex, sexual
orientation self-identification, and dimensions of orientation is robust with regard to alternative definitions and
means of assessment. Further, the data gathered in the
current investigation would be richly complimented by
the qualitative study of change in sexual orientation (e.g.,
Charboneau & Lander, 1991; Kitzinger & Wilkinson,
1995), particularly if prospective in nature (e.g., Diamond,
Future research should also address in greater detail
the relationship among the dimensions of orientation as
understood by the individual. If a person views sexual
orientation as primarily about emotional attraction and
romantic feelings or primarily a function of behavior, are
these the dimensions most likely to remain stable? Do
men and women differ with regard to the dimension(s)
self-perceived as most central to orientation?
Sexual orientation is a dimension of human existence
that is fundamentally complex, varied in its expression,
and likely to be multidetermined in its etiology. It seems
counterintuitive, therefore, to presume uniform stability
in orientation across individuals. Findings from this
study indicate that sexual orientation is flexible, to some
degree, for some individuals and that sex differences
exist in flexibility between heterosexual men and women
and, to an even greater degree, between gay men and
women. The difference between heterosexuals and gays
with regard to dimensions for which there were sex
differences reaffirms the importance of multidimensional
assessment of orientation. The results of this study have
potentially important implications for the understanding
of sexual orientation and the flexibility of orientation
and suggest strongly that further research in this area is
This paper describes aspects of the first author’s
doctoral dissertation, conducted under the supervision
of the second author. An earlier version of this article
was published in a German-language journal (Kinnish,
K. K., Strassberg, D. S., & Turner, C. M. (2004).
Flexibilitat sexueller orientierungen. Zeitschrift f¨ur Sexual
Forschung, 17, 26–45) under the agreement that the current version was to be published in an English-language
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